A woman is suing her former company for their handling of a sexual harassment problem. According to CBS Minnesota, the woman, known only as Kathy, said that her harasser would rub her thighs and shoulders, touch her butt, and pull her hair. After a few months, she reported it, and it still took more than a year for the company to do anything at all. Hence, the lawsuit.
CBS Minnesota said that the company issued a statement on the situation, which read:
We take employee concerns very seriously and expect all employees to treat one another with respect.
These statements read like so many hollow platitudes, with no substance behind them. Here’s why: Years ago, I worked for a major company that had a similar policy, particularly as it related to sexual harassment. I never thought that I would have to deal not just with sexual harassment, but with the entirely-too-hollow ring of, “We take employee concerns very seriously.”
My own story of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Not too long after I started at this company, I met a particular manager who, at first, seemed nice, cheerful, maybe a good guy to work with. He was also new there, and, like me, he was feeling his way.
But the budding rapport over being new didn’t last. It was only a few months before he started telling me how beautiful I was, how he loved the way my clothes fit, how gorgeous my hair was. I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t say anything because the fact that I didn’t work all that closely with him at the time meant I didn’t have to put up with it very much. It was, at best, an annoyance.
Besides that, I was afraid of damaging other burgeoning work relationships by overreacting. The company I worked for, and the department I worked in, were very male-dominated. I didn’t want to be seen as “that woman.” You know who “that woman” is; she’s the soap opera diva who tries to ruin a man’s career and life because she’s vindictive. She’s the persistent, pervasive stereotype, but she’s not the reality. These types of stereotypes are very powerful things that you don’t want attached to you.
Things changed at work.
It wasn’t too hard to just quietly tolerate the harassment when I didn’t have to work with him very much. When I got a promotion, however, that changed. Suddenly, I had to work very closely with him. I had to spend a ton of time with him, and he stepped things up. One recurring situation was that, if I went to his office with a question, I had to pay a price for him to answer it. That price was performing an action, like flipping my hair, slowly turning around so he could see all of me, etc., and then he’d give me an answer.
He would also come to my office, comment on my outfit, and then tell me how hot I must look when I went home in the evening and changed, especially if I changed the way he thought I did (which was taking off my slacks or skirt and wandering around the house in just my top).
He catcalled me in the main lobby, in front of other employees. And he humiliated other male employees when they’d walk into his office while I was in there, by telling them to “go ahead and look at her, you know that’s really why you’re here.”
Deciding I couldn’t take it anymore, and reaching out.
I put up with that for more than a year before I finally broke down, called my own boss one day in tears, gave him a quick run-down of the situation, and asked him what to do. At this point, I was terrified. I hated coming into work, I was trying to deal with my harasser less and less (and failing), and I was increasingly uncomfortable with all my male co-workers. My boss was a man, too, and I didn’t know if I could trust him, but I didn’t know who else to go to. It took an awful lot for me to tell him, and all the while, I was scared to death he was going to ask me for details, or even interrogate me before deciding if it was worth reporting to HR. To his credit, he did none of that, and was very professional about it. He quickly put me in touch with the right person in HR, and I filed a formal complaint.
Kathy, the woman in the CBS story, encourages women to stand up to this kind of behavior. Speak out, complain, sue if you have to, is what her attitude seems to be. It sounds fantastic and empowering, because, after all, if we all stop quietly putting up with sexual harassment, maybe we’ll get somewhere real in making it stop.
I wish I could say that I felt good reporting my harasser. I wish I could tell other women to stand strong, to do what I did, and make a difference, because Kathy is right- more of us do need to speak up. Perhaps, the less we tolerate sexual harassment, the more likely it is that we can make real progress on the issue.
Company policy was, of course, to have the victim write out a statement explaining what was happening, and then to discuss it with HR, and, in my case, my harasser’s boss. My harasser’s boss was also someone I worked very closely with, and he and I had developed a great working relationship over time. He was the one who went over my statement with me (with my HR rep present), and then helped with the investigation.
I started feeling pretty good that maybe things would turn out okay. When I first filed the complaint, I felt small and scared. I didn’t know what side effects there could be with something like this, so, when the investigation first got underway, and I was told to try not to worry anymore, I felt like maybe, just maybe, I really did have people on my side.
The aftermath was almost worse than the harassment.
The reality was much different, though. Filing that complaint was the worst mistake I made at that job. I named several witnesses to my harasser’s behavior in my statement, and every one of them threw me under the bus. Not one of them confirmed anything I said. One of them later came to me and said that, when HR called him in, he knew that they were asking him about me. They were all my harasser’s subordinates, and he said they worked under severe intimidation. They were afraid that if they backed me up, he would find out about it and they would lose their jobs. So they protected themselves, and hung me out to dry.
That scared me badly, more than it angered me, because of two things: One, it illustrated a much larger and deeper problem with the guy than just his harassment of me. The other was that I got slapped in the face with the fact that I could trust absolutely nobody there. I was alone, and on my own with this.
Besides that, when the investigation was complete and they couldn’t verify anything I said, they went to talk to my harasser, and they told him who it was that had complained when they worked with him on how to treat women in the workplace. I know this because they told me they told him when they called me in to tell me the results of their investigation.
After all was said and done, and HR had spoken with me and closed the case, I sat in my car and cried, and cried, and cried. I had all these questions swirling around in my head that basically centered on, “What if they now see me as ‘that woman’? What will I do?”
Working relationships damaged in a way I couldn’t fix.
There was evidence that those who knew about this did start to see me that way. The working relationships I had with some of them changed. It was like they were walking on eggshells with me. Conversation went from a combination of work-related and friendly chit-chat to strictly work-related. They stopped poking their heads into my office to say “hi.” To be sure, this wasn’t true of everyone. Those who didn’t treat me differently either didn’t know at all, or knew I hadn’t lied and wasn’t “that woman.” But the new level of tension I experienced affected my relationships with them, too.
As for my harasser, he started treating me very differently (which is putting it nicely). He would yell at me for things I had no control over, and no responsibility for, in front of other people. He would order me to do things he knew I didn’t have the authority to do, and then yell at me when I said I had to call my boss first. Things of that nature.
He never outright threatened me or my job, but he was not above letting everyone know that he was permanently angry with me, and creating a hostile working environment for me. One day, someone pulled me aside and asked me what I’d done to him, because he was “out to get me.” I don’t know if my harasser had actually said something, or if that was just an observation, but that made me contact HR again.
The next meeting with HR was awful.
In that next, and last, meeting with HR, I was asked if I might be just a touch oversensitive about things, and that I needed to calm down a bit, just let everything blow over so I had a more objective view on things. Yes, I was told I was being oversensitive, and I was told to calm down. And yes, it was a male manager who said these things. I actually wondered, briefly, if I could get more empathy from a cold rock than I was getting from him. My HR rep was only there to take notes.
I was told that my harasser wasn’t my boss, so he couldn’t fire me, demote me, transfer me, discipline me, or anything like that, and that if he wasn’t threatening me in some way, then I didn’t have a case. I was once again told to calm down, and that he and HR would go talk to him about how he treated “subordinates,” and that was all they could do for me.
What about support from outside of work?
At this point, I didn’t have much support from the very few people outside of work who knew about this either. I couldn’t talk about it with very many people because I was having serious issues with trust by then. One person, who was very close to me, even told me that HR was, at that point, doing what they were supposed to do when allegations of harassment and retaliation were that fuzzy. In other words, I was whacked upside my head with the fact that I could trust absolutely no one at all when it came to this problem. That realization destroyed me inside.
Outside, I pretended like everything was fine, and I just quietly tolerated things until the day was over. Inside, I tried to remain shut down as much as possible, so I wouldn’t have to deal with everything I was feeling. Then I’d cry all the way home on some days. Other days, I just stewed. The whole time, I felt trapped. There was nobody I could talk to, nobody who would help me, and nowhere I could go. I started looking for a new job without much luck because of the poor jobs market back then.
Ultimately, I did quit…nearly a year later, and two years after I got that promotion that put me into such a close working relationship with that man. I lied to everyone about why I was leaving. I told them I’d been offered a better job that paid very nicely, and I felt I would be a fool not to take it. The truth was that I had become a freelance writer and editor, scrounging up temporary gigs and short-term projects, and making what amounted to far less than minimum wage. But I couldn’t stay at that job anymore, and something was better than nothing.
I lied because I didn’t want to be told to try working with HR again, or to transfer to a different department where I didn’t have to work with my harasser anymore. I lied because I didn’t want to be told that everyone has to work with people they don’t like, and that I needed to put on my big-girl britches and deal, just like everyone else. I lied because I didn’t want to hear that I was still being oversensitive, and that I really needed to try and look at things more objectively.
I could have sued the company, I suppose, or contacted the EEOC, but I was so worn down, and so tired, and I felt so alone that, when I made the decision to leave, I just wanted to be gone. I just wanted it to be over. I was terrified of escalating things further because I had already gone through so much just within the company that I didn’t think I could handle the fallout of an escalation. And I couldn’t afford the costs, financial and otherwise, of losing such a case.
Finally, I didn’t want to have to try and trust that someone, somewhere in the company, might figure it out and give me some real help. Or, at the very least, some real empathy and support. I was done.
The wounds have yet to heal.
It’s been three years since I left, and I still bear the scars, and they still feel pretty fresh at times. When I see a woman who’s been through what I have, or worse, say that we need to speak up, I’m torn. I know she’s right, but on the other hand, I can’t look back and see any good that came from speaking up about my situation.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is still a major problem, and still swept under the rug.
Sexual harassment is a huge problem, and it’s not made any better by the lack of support that victims have. Worse, according to the not-at-all-feminist-or-liberal publication known as Forbes, less of our society sees sexual harassment as a serious workplace problem today than we did 20 years ago. Awareness of how serious a problem it is has actually gone down, not up.
One thing that Forbes mentions is that allegations of harassment are increasingly seen as the “disgruntled kvetching of prudes.” That’s one reason women don’t report it more. Another is this tidbit of wisdom, which the Forbes piece quite correctly damns:
If your harasser is your boss, ask for help to switch departments, and ask to go to a better department with a top manager. It’s in your harasser’s interest to help you. Or, if a co-worker is harassing you, make sure the co-worker appreciates that you handled things yourself. You save the co-worker a lot of problems by not reporting him. These are ways to decrease the chances of retribution while squelching the harassing behavior.
Going by that logic, what happened to me—particularly the aftermath of filing that complaint—was my fault. That is classic victim-blaming, and it needs to stop. It’s a sad, sick reality, and I know I’m not the only woman who’s faced this. If I were, then more women would report it, and more companies would help us solve it without making us feel like we should have just kept our mouths shut.
I hope that, someday, this is not the case. I hope that we see a day very soon where, when someone reports sexual harassment, they’re treated with kindness and compassion, and the situation actually gets handled with more than a cursory investigation and a flippant, “We’ll talk to them,” spiel. I hope we see a day where that statement, “We take employee concerns very seriously and expect all employees to treat one another with respect,” actually means something.
But most of all, I hope we see a day very soon where this kind of a problem is rare, if not outright wiped out. And I hope to see a day where victims of harassment don’t spend years after the fact believing they made a terrible mistake in trying to make the harassment stop.
Featured image by by Baker131313 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons